Generous to a fault

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 August, 2010, 12:00am

It used to be that a HK$90 million donation to a local university would automatically make a splash. But when tycoon Cheng Yu-tung extended such largesse last month to Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, it caused barely a ripple. Little wonder. Cheng's peers have been outdoing each other with their generosity. So, by recent standards, his contribution might be considered miserly.

In 2008, Li Ka-shing pledged a whopping HK$2 billion to Shantou University in Guangdong. Three years before that, he gave HK$1 billion to the University of Hong Kong, enough money to have the city's oldest medical faculty named after him. Also back in 2005, the late Henry Fok Ying-tung gave HK$800 million to HKUST. In 2007, Lee Shau-kee of Henderson Land handed HK$500 million to HKU for scholarships and campus development, and another HK$400 million to HKUST. In case Cheng hasn't noticed, these days, it appears that a donation of at least HK$500 million is required to merit a news headline.

Big-budget philanthropy has been in vogue among local tycoons ever since two of the world's richest men - Warren Buffett and his friend, Bill Gates - announced they planned to give away the bulk of their fortunes to humanitarian causes. Suddenly, that has become fashionable among rich people. Indeed, Gates may no longer be among the richest people because of outsized donations he has made through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Giving money away for charity and education is all very good - who can be against philanthropy? At a time when public spending on universities is being squeezed, private donations take on an increasingly important role. But should our public welfare and education resources be subject to the whims of rich donors, whose generosity has an impact on an institution's budget? The tycoons seem to devote an extraordinary amount of money towards university education, which is certainly a worthy cause. But should other welfare and education sectors be neglected as a result? The usual retort is that it's their money and they can share it in any way they like. But then we need to ask - should they have so much money to begin with?

Li, for example, famously takes only a token salary from his holdings company while his personal earnings really come from untaxed dividends. By forgoing salaries, he and his rich peers are, proportionately, paying less tax than you and I. If, instead of a low-tax/no-tax system, we have progressive taxation in Hong Kong, the money that the tycoons now so generously give away - and more - would have gone into the public coffers. Whatever you say about government inefficiency, it is far more efficient and fairer when government and society as a whole decide how to allocate welfare and educational resources which are now substantially subject to the whims of 'generous' donors.

I leave aside the controversial but not unreasonable argument that our leading tycoons have created monopolies and imposed strangleholds on the economy - in other words, they have been accused of milking the system. Our gross domestic product per capita may be on a par with Switzerland, but our high Gini index score (a measure of the rich-poor gap) is comparable to that of the Central African Republic. The tycoons' wealth has shot up in the last decade while everyone else's has either stagnated or grown ever so slowly.

So, don't let the tycoons' philanthropy fool you. Their generosity is more apparent than real. It exists by virtue of the systemic favours and advantages they have enjoyed - arguably at the expense of the rest of society. So, many of them are giving a little bit back what they have taken so much for themselves. But it's never going to be enough because they take so much and are in fact passing on the bulk of their fortune and influence to their children and grandchildren.

Do they deserve all the official honours and pseudo-doctorate titles, and having all those university buildings and campuses named after them? Well, they should think of them more as signs of penance rather than honour.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post